New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2021 Week 2 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (1-0) at Carolina Panthers (1-0)

Probably the most surprising week one result was the Saints not only upsetting the Packers as 3.5-point underdogs, but blowing them out by a final score of 38-3, the most lopsided result of the week. Unsurprisingly, that led to the biggest line movement shift of the week, with this line going from even on the early line last week to now favoring the Saints by 3.5 points on the road in Carolina, a big deal considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less.

The Packers were probably not going to be as good as last year and this roster has only gotten worse since the start of the season, with stud left tackle David Bahktiari beginning the year on the physically unable to perform list and dominant edge rusher Za’Darius Smith going on injured reserve after playing just 18 snaps in the opener, but the Saints didn’t look to be in good shape to start the season either, with top wide receiver Michael Thomas, top interior defender David Onyemata, and talented kicker Will Lutz all out for the start of the season, so it was a very surprising result, especially for a Saints team that normally gets off to a slow start anyway, going just 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 from 2010-2020, as opposed to 94-58-7 ATS in other weeks. 

The Saints won the turnover battle by 3 against the Packers, which is a very inconsistent metric week-to-week, but that win wasn’t just because of the turnover margin, as they won the first down rate battle by 10.62% and likely would have won by multiple scores even if they played turnover neutral football. However, it still worries me that the result of that game was more because of the Packers not showing up than the Saints actually still being a high level team despite key absences and off-season losses. 

We’re also getting significantly more line value with the Panthers as 3.5-point home underdogs than we were a week ago on the early line and the Saints’ injury absence situation has only gotten worse, with talented center Erik McCoy, defensive starters Marcus Davenport and Kwon Alexander, and top cornerback Marshon Lattimore all expected to be out this week as well. The Saints could also be flat after last week’s win, as teams are just 15-25 ATS over the past thirty years after a win by 21 or more as home underdogs of 3 or more, including 5-10 ATS as favorites and 2-6 ATS as road favorites.

Add in the Saints’ habitually slow starts (even last season when they beat the Buccaneers by 11 week 1, they turned around and lost week two in upset fashion against the Raiders by 10) and there is a strong case for taking the Panthers this week. I think the Panthers are a bit of an overrated team too and we’re not getting quite enough line value with them to bet them confidently, but they should be the right side and could easily catch the Saints off guard and pull the outright upset.

New Orleans Saints 19 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: Carolina +3.5

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers vs. New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 1 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (0-0) vs. New Orleans Saints (0-0) in Jacksonville

The Saints lost Drew Brees to retirement after last season and had to navigate cap hell this off-season, but they did so in a way that kept the rest of their core intact, as the Saints continued borrowing future cap space, rather than going through a full rebuild. Brees actually had his worst season in years last season, but the Saints still had a strong season because of how much talent the Saints have on the rest of this roster and most of that talent was kept this off-season. On top of that, replacement quarterback Jameis Winston looked good in the pre-season and is an experienced starter with untapped upside if he can finally learn to take better care of the ball.

All that being said, I wouldn’t expect the Saints to get off to a good start. Two of their key players, wide receiver Michael Thomas and defensive tackle David Onyemata, are out for the start of the season, due to injury and suspension respectively, and kicker Will Lutz will also be out with injury, which is a big loss for the Saints’ special teams. Winston could also take some time to settle in as well and the Saints are notoriously slow starters anyway, even with Brees, going 4-17-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season, dating back to 2010 (94-58-7 ATS in weeks 3-17). 

Further complicating things for the Saints is they won’t get to play their home opener until week 4 or later, as they’ll be on the road weeks 2 and 3 and will have to play this “home opener” against the Packers in Jacksonville, with New Orleans still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Ida. That situation has likely been a distraction for this team as well, further hurting their chances of getting out to a fast start.

That doesn’t mean I want to take the Packers this week, however, as they could also get out to a slow start, due to the absence of left tackle David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari is one of the top left tackles in the league and his presence is always missed, but he’ll be especially needed this season, given that the Packers are much thinner on the rest of this offensive line than they are used to being. With Bakhtiari’s absence, they are expected to start a pair of rookies upfront in week one, which will likely be a steep drop off for one of the best offensive lines in the league. 

The Packers could also be without Za’Darius Smith, who was very limited in practice this week with a back injury that has plagued him for several weeks now, which would be as big of a blow to their pass rush as Bakhtiari’s absence is to their pass protection. This line seems to be taking into account all of the tough circumstances the Saints are dealing with, giving them 3.5 points in a neutral site game, but ignoring the key absences for ther Packers. 

For that reason, I’m actually taking the Saints, as I think we’re getting line value with them if the line is higher than a field goal. If this game were later in the season, I would probably bet on the Saints, but it hard to be confident in them in week 1, given how slow of a start they usually get out to. If Smith plays and the line stays put, I will likely drop this down to no confidence, but it sounds more likely than not than he will be out for week one.

Update: Smith sounds likely to play, while cornerback Marshon Lattimore popped up on the injury report on Saturday, likely a bad sign for his status this week. That would leave the Saints even thinner at cornerback, a thin position group that is already missing Ken Crawley and Brian Poole with other injuries. I’m dropping this to no confidence.

Green Bay Packers 27 New Orleans Saints 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For over a decade, the Saints haven’t had to worry about the game’s most important position, with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees arriving before the 2006 season and playing at a high level basically every season. In total, Brees completed 68.8% of his passes for an average of 7.78 YPA, 491 touchdowns, and 190 interceptions in 228 starts with the Saints, while finishing in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in every season from 2006 to 2019, before falling off to a middling grade in 2020. Brees also led the Saints to a 142-86 regular season record in his starts, with 9 playoff appearances in 15 seasons and a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 44 at the end of the 2009 season. Now, with Brees opting to retire ahead of what would have been his age 42 season, the Saints are in very unfamiliar territory.

The Saints have gotten a taste of life without Brees over the past two seasons, as he has missed 9 games with injury over the two seasons combined, and the Saints have fared surprisingly well in those games, going 8-1, but that’s misleading and not indicative of long-term life without Brees for a couple reasons. For one, the Saints had unsustainably good luck in those 9 games, going 5-1 in one score games and only once winning by more than two scores in a game in which the Broncos had to play without any quarterbacks. They also faced a relatively easy schedule overall and if you look at how the Saints’ offense played in those games, it’s not hard to see how they could have won those games by more points had Brees been available.

The Saints also had a very strong roster outside of the quarterback position on both sides of the ball, much stronger than they figure to have in the post-Brees era. The Saints for the past several seasons have managed their cap like the next season was going to Brees’ last, constantly squeezing every cent out of their cap and mortgaging future cap space to spend among the most money in the league on their roster in every season. The results were good, at least in the regular season, as the Saints went 49-15 over the past 4 seasons, the best record in the NFL over that stretch, and their supporting cast has been as much the reason for that as Brees.

However, the Saints never got a Super Bowl out of it, in part due to some bad luck in the post-season, and now the bill is coming due and at the worst possible time, with the cap shrinking for the first time in years due to lost revenue from lack of in person attendance. The Saints had to part with several key contributors this off-season without being able to add much in the way of replacements and, even still, they are up against this year’s cap and projected to be slightly over next year’s cap. 

That could change depending on where next year’s cap ends up, but it’s clear that the Saints are going to be in a tough financial situation for at least the next couple years, as they are paying for years of spending beyond their means in an attempt at one last Super Bowl run. That means whoever the Saints next starting quarterback is won’t have the luxury of having the talent around him on this roster that Drew Brees did.

Who that quarterback will be is yet to be determined and Brees’ recent missed time hasn’t really made their long-term plans at the position clearer. Teddy Bridgewater was their replacement for Brees when he missed time in 2019, but he parlayed that into starting jobs in Carolina and Denver. Bridgewater was replaced last off-season by ex-Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback off the bench in place of Brees when he went down last season, completed 6 of 10 for 63 yards and in the second half of a win over the 49ers, with Taysom Hill remaining in his usual role as a wildcat quarterback/pass catcher.

However, the Saints switched things up for the four full games that Brees missed, giving Hill the opportunity to start and play a full game at quarterback for the first time ever in his age 30 season, while Winston didn’t attempt a pass throughout the four games. Hill left something to be desired as a passer, but was ultimately better than expected in the four games, completing 71.9% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. 

Where Hill really added value was on the ground, unsurprising given his athleticism, rushing for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns on 39 carries (5.36 YPC). He was only PFF’s 20th ranked quarterback out of 35 eligible for those 4 games and, like in 2019 when Bridgewater was out, the Saints’ offensive efficiency went down noticeably with Brees out of the lineup, but it seemed that Hill was destined to become the successor when Brees ultimately retired, given that he’s been a favorite of head coach Sean Payton’s for years and didn’t faceplant in his 4-game tryout, while Winston was set to hit free agency again.

However, the Saints brought back Winston on a 1-year, 5.5 million deal in free agency and he seems to be not only a competitor for the starting job, but according to some reports, the favorite to win the job. Hill’s salary is substantially more, as he’s set to make 12.159 million in the final year of his contract in 2021, but that could be more representative of his overall role as a versatile, positionless player rather than him being cemented as the starting quarterback.

Winston has plenty of experience, with 70 career starts with the Buccaneers, and he’s a former #1 overall pick (2015) who is only going into his age 27 season, but he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career and has never finished higher than 15th in a season on PFF. Overall, he’s completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 121 touchdowns, and 88 interceptions in his career. Being with Sean Payton in New Orleans is one of the best places a quarterback like Winston could be and, in fact, Payton took on a pretty big reclamation project when the Saints first signed Drew Brees, who was replaced with the Chargers by Philip Rivers and passed over by the Dolphins for Daunte Culpepper. 

That’s not to say that Winston is going to become a future Hall of Famer, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Winston could earn the starting job and Payton could coax the best season of his career out of him. That’s probably a more likely scenario than Taysom Hill suddenly becoming a more than replacement level starting quarterback for the first time in his career in his age 31 season and it would allow Hill to continue in his unique role as a runner (5.36 career YPC on 151 carries), passer (7.81 career YPA on 134 attempts), and receiver (30 career catches for 336 yards and 7 touchdowns). It’s a position group with some upside, but it’s hard to understate how much the Saints will miss Drew Brees, even if he wasn’t at his best in 2020.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

I will get into the positions where the Saints have concerns later, but whoever wins the starting quarterback job will still have some talent around them, especially at the running back position, led by feature back Alvin Kamara. Kamara has never had more than 194 carries in a season, but he’s averaged a 4.97 YPC in his career that is the 4th highest in the NFL since he entered the league in 2017 among all running backs with at least 600 carries over that stretch, and he makes up for his lack of heavy carries with his usage in the passing game, as he’s had at least 80 catches in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, averaging 8.66 yards per catch and totaling 15 receiving touchdowns, to go with his 43 rushing touchdowns. 

Overall, Kamara has finished in the top-8 among running backs in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, with the exception of a 2019 campaign in which he was at less than 100% for most of the season due to injury. He plays a position with a higher than average chance of injury and higher than average positional turnover, but he’s only missed 4 games total in 4 seasons in the league and, still only going into his age 26 season, he’s about as close to a sure thing as there is at the running back position in the entire NFL. 

Kamara also doesn’t need to take on a massive workload as a runner because the Saints have power back Latavius Murray as a complement. The 6-3 230 pound Murray has seen 146 carries exactly in each of his two seasons with the Saints and has overall rushed for 9 touchdowns and a 4.42 YPC average. His age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, but the Saints don’t rely on him for a huge workload either, so he could continue being an effective complement for another couple seasons. He doesn’t add much value as a receiver, but Kamara will play the vast majority of passing downs.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Kamara will also once again be relied on for a heavy load in the passing game, though it’s arguable if he’ll be used quite as much. On one hand, the Saints’ two quarterback options both have strong arms and they might not have as many check downs in the playbook as they did under Drew Brees, who famously loved targeting running backs in the passing game throughout his career, especially when he lost arm strength towards the end.

On the other hand, the Saints are even thinner in the receiving corps this season than they were last season. Kamara was one of four Saints with at least 35 catches and 55 targets last season and two of the four are no longer with the team, with Emmanuel Sanders (61/726/5) and tight end Jared Cook (37/504/7) both going elsewhere this off-season, Cook as a free agent and Sanders as a cap casualty. The Saints really didn’t do anything to replace either one and instead will be counting on young players stepping up and their star offensive players taking on a large volume.

Along with Kamara, the Saints’ other star offensive player is wide receiver Michael Thomas and the Saints will get an obvious boost getting him back after he was really not healthy all season last year, following a week one high ankle sprain. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas had the most productive start to a career of any wide receiver ever before last season, posting a 92/1137/9 slash line as a rookie in 2016, a 104/1245/5 in 2017, a 125/1405/9 in 2018, and a league leading 149/1725/9 in 2019, while finishing as a top-8 wide receiver on PFF in all four seasons, including top-3 finishes from 2017-2019. However, Thomas was limited to just a 40/438/0 slash line in just 7 games last season.

Thomas only missed one game in his career prior to last season and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so he’s as close to a sure thing to bounce back as any player in the league this season and possibly a favorite for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Thomas might not be quite as productive without Drew Brees throwing him the ball, but, in an offense that lacks other proven weapons, he figures to get a massive target share and he’s proven in the past that he can make contested catches regularly against heavy coverage.

Fourth year receiver Tre’Quan Smith is expected to be the #2 receiver, barring any cheap additions the Saints may be able to make with their limited remaining cap space. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Smith has gotten opportunity to play in his career, but last season, when he finished 5th on the team in targets and had a 34/448/4 slash line, was the most productive he’s ever been, which shows you the lack of productivity from him in his career. He also finished last season as PFF’s 99th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible on a career high 672 snaps. 

In all, Smith has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run in his career, despite playing primarily with Drew Brees under center. It’s possible he could benefit from having a quarterback under center who throws downfield more and the Saints don’t really have much of a choice but to give him more targets than he’s ever had before, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a sudden breakout season. He is only the #2 receiver by default, as their other options for playing time are a trio of recent undrafted free agents, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Deonte Harris from 2019 and Marquez Callaway from 2020. 

Callaway played the most of the three in 2020, seeing 266 snaps, but he didn’t show much and finished with just a 21/213/0 slash line. Deonte Harris showed a little bit more, playing just 169 snaps and almost matching Callaway’s production with a 20/186/1 slash line, but he’s highly inexperienced, having played just 235 career snaps, and his 5-6 170 frame may limit him as a player. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, meanwhile, has played even less in his career, playing just 118 snaps, and has shown no sign of developing into a long-term contributor. 

Second year tight end Adam Trautman has more upside than their young wide receivers. A 3rd round pick, Trautman didn’t show much as a receiver in his rookie year with just a 15/171/1 slash line, but he was one of the better blocking tight ends in the league and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his receiving take a big step forward in 2021. He wouldn’t be the first tight end to take a big step forward in his second season in the league and his receiving production was in part limited by his usage last season, receiving the ball just 3.7 yards from the line of scrimmage on his average catch and showing impressive after the catch ability with 7.7 yards after per catch. With the starting tight end job to himself and a quarterback under center who figures to throw downfield more, Trautman has the potential to have a solid receiving year in this offense and figures to get a significant target share regardless.

Depth is a concern at tight end because the Saints didn’t just lose Jared Cook this off-season, but also lost long-time #2 tight end Josh Hill to retirement, ahead of what would have been his age 31 season. Instead, it looks like Nick Vannett, a 5-year veteran journeyman who has never topped 29 catches in a season, will be the #2 tight end. Vannett is an adequate blocker, but little else and is unlikely to make an impact in the passing game. This passing game is very top heavy with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara at the top and question marks beyond them, and, since Kamara is counted with the running backs, that leaves the Saints with arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the league. Michael Thomas returning to form will elevate this whole group, but they desperately need at least a couple young players to step up.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

One area where the Saints remain strong is the offensive line, where they return all five starters from a unit that was among the league’s best last season. The strength of this group is the offensive tackle position, where left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk have been one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in recent years. Armstead has been a top level starting left tackle since entering the lineup in 2014, finishing in the top-24 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-8. 

Durability has always been the concern for him, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season, most recently missing a pair of games with injury last season. He will probably miss at least some time again with injury, but the Saints retained swing tackle James Hurst, so they at least have a decent insurance policy. They also have 2018 7th round pick Will Clapp as a versatile reserve, but he will probably focus on being a backup on the interior and he’s an underwhelming option anyway. 

Another growing concern with Armstead is he’s going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and isn’t necessarily going to start declining in 2021. Ramczyk, meanwhile, was added opposite Armstead in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he’s been one of the top right tackles in the league since the word go, finishing in the top-14 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a #1 ranked finish in 2019, while making 63 of 64 starts over that stretch. Very much still in his prime in his age 27 season, there is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Saints also have a talented young center in Erik McCoy, a 2nd round pick in 2019. McCoy quietly had a dominant rookie year, finishing 4th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, while he wasn’t quite as good in 2020, he still finished 11th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, still only going into his age 24 season, he looks like he will be one of the better centers in the league for years to come. 

Guard is the Saints’ weakest position upfront, even though they have a pair of former first round picks at the position. Andrus Peat was a first round pick back in 2015, but he has had trouble staying healthy, never playing all 16 games in a season, and it seems his recent injury history has caught up with him, as he hasn’t earned higher than an average grade from PFF in any of the past three seasons, after a promising start to his career. The Saints still locked Peat up on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal last off-season, but that quickly looks like an overpay. 

Still only in his age 28 season, Peat theoretically has some bounce back potential if he can finally stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee, especially now three years removed from his last above average season. Right guard Cesar Ruiz, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2020, but he was mediocre on 744 rookie year snaps. He could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Even if he doesn’t, this should still be an above average offensive line regardless of their guard play.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Saints also lost some key players on defense this off-season. Probably the most talented player they lost was defensive end Trey Hendrickson, whose 13.5 sacks were tied for the 2nd most in the NFL last season, leading to him securing a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal from the Cincinnati Bengals that was far out of the Saints’ price range. Hendrickson might not be that big of a loss though, for a few reasons. For one, he wasn’t quite as good as his sack total last season, as his production was in part because of the talent around him.

Hendrickson was also technically the Saints’ third defensive end, as Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are both talented starters. The Saints like to rotate players at the defensive end position, but they used their first round pick on a defensive end, taking Houston’s Payton Turner 28th overall and he will essentially replace Hendrickson. Turner was a bit of a questionable pick, not just because most expected him to fall into the second round, but also because the Saints had more pressing needs. That doesn’t mean he will be a bust, but they probably could have used that pick better.

Jordan and Davenport are also former first round picks, in 2011 and 2018 respectively, and both are under contract for the foreseeable future, 3 years and 2 years respectively. Jordan’s age is becoming a minor concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and has been as durable as any player in the league in his career, remarkably playing in all 160 possible games in 10 seasons in the league, the longest active streak on defense, and regularly finishing among the league leaders in snaps played at his position, averaging 56.3 snaps per game in his career. 

Even if he does start to regress in 2021, Jordan should still be one of the better players in the league at his position. He has had a great career overall, but he’s especially been impressive over the past 6 seasons, finishing in the top-15 among edge defenders on PFF in all 6 seasons, totaling 65.5 sacks, 67 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch and playing the run at a high level as well. Unless his abilities fall off a cliff, he should be a very valuable player again on this defensive line.

Davenport, meanwhile, has shown all the potential to be an above average every down player, but he needs to stay on the field. Davenport has played just 37 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and, with other talented players at the position, he’s also been limited to just 35.7 snaps per game when he has been healthy, which is a big part of the reason why he has been limited to just 12 total sacks, but he’s added 25 hits and a 13.0% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run. His highest rated season on PFF came in 2019 when he was PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender on 533 snaps (13 games) and, still only going into his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed that if he can finally stay healthy. That may be a big if, but he’s dripping with potential.

The Saints also signed veteran Tanoh Kpassagnon as a free agent this off-season, but that was before the draft when they selected Turner and it’s unclear how much of a role Kpassagnon will have with Turner in the mix. That’s a good thing, however, as Kpassagnon has been one of the worst starting defensive ends in the league over the past two seasons with the Chiefs. He’s finished 109th out of 121 eligible edge defenders and 101st out of 125 eligible edge defenders respectively, while totaling just 5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.5% pressure rate. 

Kpassagnon may be better off in a reserve role, but the Saints are probably best off with him only playing a few snaps per game. 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun could also be in the mix, but the hybrid player only played 82 snaps as a rookie and only 28 of them came on passing plays, on 19 of which he dropped into coverage rather than rushing the passer. If he sees a significantly increased role in his second season in the league, it will likely be primarily as a traditional off ball linebacker. This is a talented position group led by a trio of former first round picks in various stages of their careers and they have sufficient depth options as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints also lost a pair of defensive tackles this off-season, with Sheldon Rankins signing with the Jets on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal that the Saints would have had a hard time matching if they wanted to and Malcom Brown being traded to the Jaguars for a late round pick in a salary dump that saved the Saints another 5 million. Neither player was a major contributor last season, playing 415 snaps and 345 snaps respectively, but they’re both solid players and the Saints did nothing to replace them.

Third year player Shy Tuttle is expected to move into the starting lineup and, while he’s shown a lot of promise against the run thus far in his career, he’s still a former undrafted free agent who has only played 340 snaps and 326 snaps in two seasons in the league and he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, with just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in his limited playing time. Tuttle could see his snap total close to double this season and he’s a major projection to a larger role.

Cameron Roach is also likely to be in the mix for playing time, even though the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 135th out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 233 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in his second season in the league, but he looks far from ever developing into a contributor. Veteran Ryan Glasgow is also likely to see action. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow’s career got off to a promising start, particularly his play against the run, but injuries have derailed his career, starting with a torn ACL that he suffered early in the 2018 season. 

Since then, Glasgow has played just 152 snaps total and, after the Bengals cut him in final cuts last off-season, he spent last season bouncing around the Texans, Patriots, and Saints practice squads before finally appearing in two games for the Saints down the stretch. Injuries are always the main concern with him, but he has a pretty clear path to a roster spot and a likely rotational role if he can stay healthy. Glasgow isn’t a pass rush option though, so the Saints could try to mask their lack of interior pass rushers with their depth at defensive end and use one of their defensive ends on the interior in sub packages.

Fortunately, the Saints still have David Onyemata, an every down player who is by far their best interior pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has steadily developed throughout his career. He struggled overall as a rookie, but took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his 2nd season in the league and has totaled 16 sacks, 22 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate in 4 seasons since. His play against the run left something to be desired early in his career, but he has developed in that aspect as well and finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender overall, excelling as a pass rusher (6.5 sacks, 10 hits, 11.6% pressure rate), but also earning an above average run stopping grade. 

Onyemata might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in his career best 2020 season, but he’s very much in his prime in his age 28 season, so he should at least remain an above average every down player. He elevates a position group that otherwise has a lot of question marks and a concerning lack of depth. Even if their defensive end depth is able to somewhat mask their lack of defensive tackle depth, the Saints still figure to get noticeably worse interior play this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Saints also lost a couple linebackers this off-season, with Alex Anzalone signing with the Lions in free agency and Kwon Alexander being cut for salary purposes. Like the defensive tackles they lost, neither player was a major contributor, playing 525 snaps and 350 snaps respectively, but both were capable players and the Saints are thinner at the position without them. They did address the position in the draft, using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s Pete Werner, and, as I mentioned earlier, 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun figures to see a bigger role as a linebacker this season, but both are significant question marks because of their lack of experience. 

Fortunately, top linebacker Demario Davis remains and should continue playing his normal every down role, in which he’s played 60.3 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Saints. Davis was a late bloomer who was underwhelming earlier in his career with the Browns and Jets, but he’s finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 straight seasons, including a career best #2 ranked finish in 2019, and has cemented himself among the better players in the league at his position. 

Davis’ age is a concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 6th among off ball linebackers on PFF last season, and, even if he declines, he should remain an above average every down linebacker. He also has no real injury history to speak of, playing 144 of a possible 144 games since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2012, which bodes well for his chances of continuing to play at a high level. The Saints will need him to continue playing well and staying healthy because he is their only proven linebacker and this position group lacks depth in a concerning way.

Grade: B

Secondary

Safety Malcolm Jenkins also saw significant action as a linebacker last season, but he might not play there quite as much this season because the Saints are also thinner in the secondary. The big loss was cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was a solid starter last season, but was let go for financial reasons ahead of what would have been his age 33 season. The Saints didn’t replace him until using a third round pick on Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo, so PJ Williams, a hybrid cornerback/safety who would play safety when Jenkins played linebacker, could have to see more action at cornerback this season.

Regardless of where he plays, PJ Williams is a pretty uninspiring option, as he has received below average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including one of the worst in the league last season. A 6-year veteran, Williams has been better in the past, but, even only in his age 28 season, it seems like his best days are behind him. Fellow veteran Patrick Robinson’s best days are definitely behind him, but he too looks to be in the mix for playing time at cornerback. Highly inconsistent even in his prime, Robinson’s best season came in 2017 for the Eagles, when he finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF on 710 snaps, but he’s subsequently played just 528 snaps with the Saints in 3 seasons since then, due in part to both injury and ineffectiveness, and now he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he has anything left. 

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was the #3 cornerback and slot specialist last season, but he may see more action outside this season, given that their only other starting options are the aforementioned Williams and Robinson and a raw third round rookie. A 4th round pick by the Saints in 2019, Gardner-Johnson flashed on 547 snaps as a rookie before being more of a middling player on 861 snaps in 2020. He showed versatility as a rookie by playing safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback, before becoming the Saints’ primary slot cornerback in 2020, but outside cornerback would be a new challenge for him. He’s a versatile player who has shown upside, but his best play came in limited action and the Saints may be hurting his development if they move him around too much.

Marshon Lattimore remains the #1 cornerback, but the 2017 1st round pick has yet to match the heights he reached as a rookie, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. In 3 seasons since then, he hasn’t finished above 29th on PFF. After allowing a 52.9% completion and 0 touchdowns to 5 interceptions as a rookie, he has allowed 59.2% completion and 12 touchdowns to 5 interceptions since, taking three seasons to match his rookie year interception total. He’s still a young player, only going into his age 25 season, and he’s loaded with potential, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back to his rookie year form. 

Safety Marcus Williams doesn’t get the recognition that Lattimore gets, but he is actually the best defensive back in this secondary and one of the top safeties in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams has started 60 games in 4 seasons in the league and has ranked in the top-8 among safeties in 3 those 4 seasons, with the outlier coming in a 31st ranked season in 2018. Williams is also still young, going into his age 25 season and, barring major injuries, should remain one of the top safeties in the league long-term. 

The Saints had to push more cap hits to the future to do it, but they were able to keep Williams on the 10.612 million dollar franchise tag this off-season and, while signing him to a long-term deal is another challenge, given his likely asking price at the top of the market (15-16 million) and the Saints’ dire cap situation for the next few off-seasons, he is one of their most important players and the Saints seem to be prioritizing him as such. If they had let him walk this off-season, their secondary would be in much worse shape.

Malcolm Jenkins remains as the other starting safety, but the Saints may have cut him this off-season if they could have, as he’s now going into his age 34 season and the 4-year, 32 million dollar extension he signed just last off-season now looks like a mistake, as he’s set to take home a guaranteed 6.2 million this season, after showing significant decline a year ago in a season in which he took home 10.55 million, including a 9 million dollar signing bonus. 

Jenkins had earned an average or better grade from PFF in 7 straight seasons prior to signing that deal with the Saints, with the previous 6 of those seasons coming with the Eagles, but in 2020, he fell to 57th among 99 eligible safeties, especially struggling in coverage, ranking 82nd in coverage grade at his position. It’s possible he is able to turn back the clock in 2021, but at his age, that’s far from a guarantee and he could easily continue declining, especially if asked to cover on the backend too often. This group is obviously better for having retained its top player, safety Marcus Williams, but it’s a group with plenty of question marks as well.

Grade: B

Kicker/Punter

The Saints had among the best special teams in the league last season, finishing 5th in special teams DVOA. The only aspect in which they were below average was place kicking and only by a little bit. Kicker Will Lutz wasn’t bad, finishing 11th among kickers on PFF, making 57/58 on extra points and 23/28 on field goals, but he was just 1/3 on field goals beyond 50+ yards. He’s been better in the past though, as last season was his lowest ranked season on PFF, while his best season was a 2nd ranked finish in 2018. 

In total, Lutz has hit 86.6% of his field goals and 97.3% of his extra points in five seasons in the league, including 13/23 on field goals longer than 50+ yards and 52/60 on field goals between 40-49 yards. I would expect him to be better in 2021 compared to 2020, even if he isn’t quite as good as he’s been in his best years. Lutz was also a weapon on kickoffs, part of the reason it was a big strength of this special teams unit, as he ranked 2nd on PFF in kickoff grade, his 4th straight season in the top-5. That should continue in 2021.

Punter Thomas Morestead wasn’t quite as good, ranking 24th among punters, but the Saints’ punting unit was also a big strength, in large part due to the supporting cast. Morestead has also been better in the past, finishing in the top-13 among punters on PFF in 7 straight seasons prior to last season, including four seasons in the top-5 (2013, 2014, 2016, 2017), so he should be better in 2021 than 2020, perhaps significantly so. This should be at least a solid kicker/punter duo and they have the upside to be much more than that.

Grade: A

Return Specialists

The Saints were also above average on returns, averaging 10.2 yards per punt return and 25.4 yards per kickoff return, good for 9th best in the NFL and 6th best in the NFL respectively. Most of the work was done by the Saints supporting cast though, as none of their returners finished above average on PFF. Deonte Harris was their best kickoff returner, averaging 27.3 yards per kickoff return on 16 attempts, after averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return on 24 attempts as a rookie in 2019, and he should remain in that role in 2021, even if he’s also expected to serve a bigger role on offense.

Harris also has returned 53 punts for 10.3 yards per return with a touchdown in his career, including 17 return attempts in 2020, but he was one of three punt returners who saw significant action for the Saints, along with Marquez Callaway and Tommylee Lewis. Lewis is no longer with the team, leaving Harris and Callaway to compete for the punt returner role. Callaway is also expected to see a bigger role on offense in 2021, but it’s probably more likely that they will continue using Callaway on punt returns rather than using Harris primarily in both capacities, in addition to his own offensive role. 

Callaway had a lot of help from his supporting cast, but he averaged an impressive 11.1 yards per return average on 11 returns last season in his first season in the league, after averaging 13.6 yards per with 3 touchdowns on 40 returns at the University of Tennessee. Both Harris and Callaway should continue being productive in their respective roles if they continue to get good play from their supporting cast, though they might struggle if they don’t get the same support.

Grade: B-

Special Teamers

It’s possible the Saints won’t get the same level of play from their supporting cast and the loss of Justin Hardee, PFF’s 4th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 214 snaps, and Craig Robertson, PFF’s 24th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 358 snaps, is a big part of the reason why. Zach Baun also had a strong season, finishing as PFF’s 16th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 245 snaps, but the 2020 3rd round pick is just a one-year wonder on special teams and could see a bigger role on defense in year two, at the expense of some special teams snaps. The Saints also lost Alex Anzalone, who was decent across 179 special teams snaps in 2020.

JT Gray (323 snaps) and Kaden Ellis (274 snaps) return after finishing with above average grades from PFF and they have proven track records as well, so they should continue their above average play, but Dwayne Washington (203 snaps), Carl Granderson (174 snaps), and Adam Trautman (154 snaps) all struggled last season and their track records aren’t much better, so they would likely continue to struggle if counted on for significant roles again. 

The Saints did add one free agent to this group, Alex Armah, who has averaged 214 snaps per season as a special teamer over the past four seasons, but he has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. The Saints will need significant contributions from their rookie class to continue playing at the level they played at last season, though they do benefit from the return of special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, an 11-year NFL special teams coordinator who is well regarded around the league. Still, I would expect a drop off from last season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The big concern with the Saints is the loss of quarterback Drew Brees, but he was far from the Saints’ only loss in an off-season where the Saints had to cut significant salary to get under the cap. The Saints have managed to win without Brees over the past two seasons because of their dominant supporting cast, but now more pressure will be placed on the Saints’ replacement signal caller with the rest of this roster thinned out. The Saints will also face a much tougher schedule this season than their schedule without Brees over the past two seasons and the fact that the Saints didn’t win most of those games convincingly is a concern, especially since their offensive efficiency noticeably dropped. 

There is still enough on this team that the Saints could still be in the mix for a wild card spot in the NFC, but they’re obviously behind Tampa Bay in the division now and it’s clear that the Saints have had among the biggest talent drop offs of any team in the league. They were starting from a high baseline, but any time a team loses significant talent in an off-season, it’s a concern. I will have a final prediction for the Browns at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Saints were dealt a big blow when Michael Thomas needed ankle surgery that seems likely to sideline him for the first couple months of the season, but they did shore up a big weakness on defense by adding cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Brian Poole, the latter of whom is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. They will also get some benefit from their special teams, which are more predictive than I previously though.

9/4/21 Update: The Saints will be without the injured Michael Thomas, the suspended David Onyemata, and injured kicker Will Lutz for the start of the season and they normally start slow anyway, so I would expect them to struggle to begin the season, before likely becoming a strong bet in the second half of the season. The loss of Brian Poole for the season hurts this defense and the Saints are likely to fall short of a playoff berth, but there is still plenty of talent here, as the Saints opted not to go for the full rebuild this off-season.

Prediction: 9-8 2nd in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Chicago Bears (8-8) at New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Coming into the season, the Saints ranked a clear #1 in my roster rankings and were my pre-season Super Bowl pick (over Baltimore). The Saints weren’t a consistently dominant team this season, but they consistently played well overall, despite missing various key players with injury at different points in the season. They went 12-4 and finished 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.34%, even though quarterback Drew Brees (4 games missed), feature backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (1 game missed each), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore, among other minor players, all missed time with injury.

All of the aforementioned players are expected to be available in this one. The Saints aren’t at full strength, but they’re much closer to it than they were for most of the season and they’re closer to it than most teams at this point in the season. They aren’t the #1 team in my roster rankings, but they’re only slightly behind Green Bay, with their most notable absence, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, causing them to fall slightly behind the Packers. They should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl of any of the wild card weekend teams, as long as they continue staying reasonably healthy.

Making matters even better for the Saints, they have a relatively easy first round matchup, with the 8-8 Bears coming to town. In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Bears are about as you’d expect from an 8-8 team, ranking 13th at +0.17%, but, unlike the Saints who are balanced on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in first down rate over expected and 6th in first down rate allowed over expected, the Bears are heavily reliant on their defense, which ranks 7th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.30%, while their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate over expected at -2.12%

That’s a concern because defensive performance is much less predictive and predictable week-to-week than offensive performance. The Bears also have injury concerns on defense, most notably the potential absence of stud linebacker Roquan Smith, who has been a big part of their defensive success this season. The Bears’ offense has been better in recent weeks with Mitch Trubisky under center, but he’s struggled in their only two games against competent defenses over that stretch, both double digit losses to the Packers, while his other games have come against defenses ranked 26th (Vikings), 29th (Jaguars), 30th (Texans), and 32nd (Lions) in first down rate allowed over expected. 

Trubisky did lead the Bears to 30+ points in each of those 4 games, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than an upgrade over Nick Foles, which isn’t saying much. Of all of the playoff qualifiers, I have the Bears ranked last in my roster rankings, coming in about a half point below average overall. I have the Saints with a 9.5 point advantage, which gives us a calculated line of New Orleans -11, with the Saints at least having some fans in advantage for this matchup. Unfortunately, this line is up to New Orleans -10, with the public recognizing how lopsided this matchup is, but the Saints should still be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, even if there isn’t enough value here for the Saints to be worth betting.

New Orleans Saints 27 Chicago Bears 15

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

I have been expecting to bet on the Saints this week, but things got thrown into flux on Saturday when it was announced that not only Alvin Kamara, but the Saints’ entire running back room will be out due to COVID protocols, in a situation reminiscent of the Broncos playing without quarterbacks and the Browns playing without their top-4 wide receivers earlier this season. Both of those teams not only lost, but failed to cover. I think this is a different situation though, for a couple reasons.

For one, running back is one of the more replaceable positions. On top of that, the Saints have players at other positions, wide receiver Ty Montgomery and quarterback Taysom Hill, who have the versatility to move to running back if needed. And perhaps more important, the Saints are a much more complete and talented team than the Broncos or Browns were. The pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings, the Saints haven’t been quite as dominant as expected, but that is largely due to the fact that they have been dealing with key injury absences all season. 

Despite that, they rank 2nd in the league with a +4.47% schedule adjusted first down rate differential and are one of two teams, along with the Buccaneers, to rank in the top-10 both on offense in first down rate (4th) and on defense in first down rate allowed (7th). They started 1-2, but have won 10 of 12 games since, as they typically do after slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 93-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. They’ll be more depleted this week than usual, but I still have them 7th in my roster rankings with Montgomery and Hill as their running backs and I still have this line calculated at New Orleans -9, shifted down from -10.5 earlier this week. 

The oddsmakers’ line has shifted appropriately, going from -6.5 to -5, but it was undervalued to begin with. The Panthers have been competitive in most of their games, with 11 games decided by one score or less, including 8 of their 10 losses, despite a relatively tough schedule, and they rank 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.30%, but they’ve largely overachieved their talent level this season and are further depleted by missing key players in this matchup. Already without feature back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Russell Okung on offense, the Panthers will also be without McCaffrey’s backup Mike Davis, who has played well as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence, and they’ll be without their top defensive player Brian Burns. 

Overall, I have the Panthers 25th in my roster rankings, without the players they are missing, and I wouldn’t expect them to be that competitive this week with a Saints team that is still one of the better teams in the league, even without some key absent players. I’m not as confident in the Saints as I would have been earlier this week at -6.5 when the Saints still had their running backs, but at -5, the Saints are still worth a bet.

New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)

One interesting metric that I look at is called variance, which measures the variance in a team’s performance from week-to-week. The Saints have been among the league leaders in this metric this year, ranking 4th, meaning they’ve been one of the least consistent teams in the league week-to-week. Sometimes this is due to sheer randomness and there isn’t a good explanation for it (like the 2nd ranked New England Patriots), but the most common reason for a team being inconsistent week-to-week is injuries, as having several key players in and out of the lineup over the course of a season will lead to significant week-to-week variance in performance.

That has been the case for the Saints, who have been among the most injury prone teams in the league this season, with key players on both sides of the ball both missing time, but also returning at various points in the season. The Saints are probably the best team in the league when everyone is at full strength (they were the pre-season #1 in my roster rankings), so, even with some key injuries, they’ve managed to go 10-4, but their play has slipped a little bit in recent weeks, resulting in back-to-back losses after a 10-2 start.

In some ways, both losses were understandable and slightly excusable. The first loss came in a game in which the Saints were facing an unfamiliar rookie quarterback with no pre-season tape on him and it came before a much bigger game against the Chiefs, so it was understandable they would be caught off guard, while the second loss came against a Chiefs team that is currently favored to win the Super Bowl, so losing to them isn’t a big deal, and both losses did come by only a field goal. However, both games required a borderline garbage time touchdown by the Saints to cut the deficit to 3 and the Saints lost the first down rate battle by a combined 4.38% in those games. 

Those two losses dropped the Saints to 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.57% and their injury situation is going in the wrong direction as well. Drew Brees has returned, but he might not be fully 100% and, at less than 100%, he isn’t a big upgrade over Taysom Hill, while the Saints have key players on both sides of the ball that are out that were not out when Hill was starting, most notably #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas and stud safety Marcus Williams. Overall, they’ve fallen to 9th in my roster rankings, which certainly isn’t bad, but they’re not the dominant team they looked to be a few weeks ago. 

With that in mind, I think we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors, with the Vikings coming in as 7-point underdogs. The Vikings are also a little underrated themselves. They aren’t nearly as good without top linebacker Eric Kendricks, who is once again out on defense, but their 7th ranked schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.31%) is significantly better than their record and is only slightly behind the Saints.

The metrics the Vikings have struggled in are metrics that are much less predictable week-to-week, like their net -15.55% fourth down conversion rate, their -19.19% net field goal conversion percentage, their 41.18% fumble recovery rate (28th in the NFL), their 2.99% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is significantly higher than quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and their -4 return touchdown margin. I don’t want to bet on the Vikings without Kendricks, especially since the better team usually covers on a short week (favorites of 6+ cover at a 62.8% rate when both teams have had 4 days of rest or fewer), but the Vikings should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 33 Minnesota Vikings 28

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints lost last week in big upset fashion, losing as 8-point road favorites in Philadelphia, ending a 9 game winning streak in the process. I don’t really hold that against them though, as the Eagles have a solid defense and got better quarterback play from new starter Jalen Hurts, while the Saints were caught off guard, facing a sub-.500 team with an unfamiliar quarterback under center, the game before this huge game against the defending Super Bowl champs. The Saints should be much more focused this week and will likely prove last week was largely a fluke, as is usually the case after big upsets like that, as teams cover at a 60.5% rate historically after a loss as road favorites of 7 points or more.

Even with last week’s loss included, the Saints still sit at 10-3 and have really rebounded from their slow 1-2 start, as they typically do, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 91-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. Making that even more impressive is the fact that they really haven’t been healthy all season. They lost #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas in week 1, followed shortly after by some defensive starters and they haven’t been at full strength since.

Their defensive starters later returned and the Saints’ defense has been on fire since, while Thomas returned as well a few weeks later, but in his first game back, quarterback Drew Brees got hurt and went on to miss the next 4 and a half games. Brees is back this week, but, at the same time, they will be without Thomas again, as the fates seem to be coinciding to make sure one of the most accomplished pass catching duos in the league barely gets to play together this season.

Even with Thomas out, I still like the Saints’ bounce back chances, as they really haven’t been healthy all season and have still managed to be very effective, not just in the win/loss column, but also ranking 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.43%. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have the Saints ranked 4th even without Thomas. At their best, the Saints are probably the best team in the league and, though we may never actually see them at full strength, they still have enough talent on both sides of the ball to still be one of the top teams in the league, even when missing key players.

The Chiefs are obviously a high level team, but even they shouldn’t be getting a field goal on the road in New Orleans, as these two teams aren’t far apart in my rankings, even with the Saints missing Thomas. The Saints have minimal homefield advantage this season with limited attendance in the stands, but, even still, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, so we’re getting great line value with the Saints. 

I normally don’t pick against the Chiefs unless I have a good reason to (28-20-2 ATS with Patrick Mahomes), but you could say the same thing about picking against the Saints after the first few weeks of the season, so I have no concerns betting big against the Chiefs this week. In fact, without a better option, this is going to be my Pick of the Week. The money line at +140 is also a smart play as this line is really off and should probably favor the Saints, even if only a little bit.

New Orleans Saints 35 Kansas City Chiefs 33 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1)

It may seem crazy, but there are reasons to like the Eagles this week and I strongly considered betting on them as home underdogs of a touchdown against the Saints. The Eagles’ offensive struggles have been well documented this season, but what’s been lost in that is that their defense has played pretty well, ranking 9th in first down rate allowed over expected and, while their offensive issues go beyond their quarterback play, it’s hard to imagine their offense being worse with Jalen Hurts under center than Carson Wentz, given how much Wentz has regressed and struggled this year. Perhaps the rookie Hurts can give this offense somewhat of a spark, especially in his debut against a team that hardly has any professional tape on him in this offense.

The Saints have been a juggernaut this season, going on their annual run (91-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17 since 2010) and winning 9 straight since their 1-2 start, including 3 straight with backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the lineup. Their wins with Hill in the lineup have been much more defensive led though and this could easily be a relatively low scoring defensive battle, in which case having a full touchdown of cushion with the home team would be very attractive. 

This is also an obvious look ahead spot for the Saints, with a big home game against the Chiefs on deck. Road favorites are just 52-83 ATS before being home underdogs since 2008 and, even if the Saints aren’t home underdogs next week (+3 currently on the early line), the logic still holds that the Saints might not be fully focused for a 3-8-1 team with a defending champs on deck and, as a result, that they could easily be caught off guard by a quarterback who they’ve hardly seen play at the NFL level. We’re not getting quite enough line value with the Eagles to bet money against this Saints juggernaut, but they should be the right side.

Update: This line has moved to up 8, so I’m going to place a small wager on the Eagles. My calculated line is New Orleans -6.5, so we’re getting decent line value with the Eagles, but, more importantly, the Saints are in a tough spot, facing an unfamiliar quarterback, with a much tougher matchup on deck. This should be a close defensive matchup and, barring return touchdowns or something else strange, I would expect a one score game. 

New Orleans Saints 19 Philadelphia Eagles 14

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +8

Confidence: Medium

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

When these two teams met a couple weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints won pretty easily by score of 24-9. Saints head coach Sean Payton was credited for his decision to start hybrid player Taysom Hill over backup quarterback Jameis Winston in that game in place of the injured Drew Brees, but ultimately the decision probably didn’t matter, as the Saints won that game primarily with their defense, holding a capable Falcons offense to a 23.73% first down rate that is among the worst single week marks in the league this season. The Saints then got another defensive led victory over a Broncos team that literally didn’t have a quarterback last week, so it’s safe to say the jury is still out on Hill as an NFL quarterback. 

The Saints have arguably the best defense in the NFL, but defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Saints aren’t healthy on defense either, with a pair of key players in cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive end Marcus Davenport picking up new injuries that will cause them to miss this game. If the Saints’ defense isn’t as dominant as they’ve been recently, the Falcons have a good chance to pull off this upset, especially since the Saints’ offense is also missing a key player beyond Brees, with stud left tackle Terron Armstead out for the second straight week. Meanwhile, the Falcons will have a key player in Julio Jones back from injury after missing the last game and a half, including the majority of the first matchup between these two teams two weeks ago.

The Saints are in a little bit better of a spot, with only an easy trip to Philadelphia on deck, while the Falcons are coming off of a huge upset victory over the Raiders, which typically tends to be a bad betting spot (teams are 32-44 ATS after a home upset victory by 17 points or more as underdogs of 3 points or more), but it’s hard to see the Falcons looking past a huge divisional rival that just beat them recently, so they should be mostly focused for this one. 

The line did move significantly from New Orleans -3.5 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week, a significant swing considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, but this line has crept back up to a field goal in some places, and if we can get a good +3 before gametime, I will probably end up betting on it. The money line is worth a bet as well at +130 because this game should be considered about a toss up.

Atlanta Falcons 24 New Orleans Saints 23 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Low